[Pnews] Major Ruling - California prisons' use of solitary confinement violates court settlement

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 29 10:10:08 EST 2019


  California prisons' use of solitary confinement violates court settlement

Bob Egelko <https://www.sfchronicle.com/author/bob-egelko/> - Jan. 28, 2019

California prison officials have systematically violated the rights of 
inmates spelled out in an agreement more than three years ago to limit 
the use of solitary confinement by crafting dubious procedures to 
classify prisoners as rule-breakers who must remain in isolation cells, 
a federal magistrate has ruled.

In deciding that inmates were too dangerous to return to the general 
prison population, officials have fabricated claims of information from 
confidential sources and abused rules of secrecy to thwart inmates’ 
challenges, U.S. Magistrate Robert Illman of Eureka said Friday. He said 
officials have also denied inmates “a fair opportunity to seek parole” 
from prison by using unreliable evidence to identify them as gang members.

Illman’s ruling extends 
next January a court-supervised settlement that had been scheduled to 
expire in October 2018.

“Unfortunately, California is still violating our clients’ fundamental 
rights” that the settlement was designed to protect, attorney Rachel 
Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights said Monday. She said 
the ruling sends a message to the state and Gov. Gavin Newsom: “Until 
the constitutional violations end, the courts will be watching.”

Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and 
Rehabilitation, said the department was assessing the decision. The 
department could appeal to U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who 
approved the original settlement in October 2015.

The settlement resulted from a suit filed in 2012, when California 
prisons had nearly 10,000 inmates 
solitary confinement, including 1,557 who had been there for 10 years or 
more. The prisoners in solitary confinement are kept in windowless 
concrete cells for more than 22 hours a day, are fed through slots, are 
excluded from job training and other prison programs, and cannot earn 
credits toward their parole. The only way out for most inmates in 
solitary, according to the suit, was to become an informant.

The settlement eliminated gang membership by itself as grounds for 
solitary confinement and allowed placement only for violent acts in 
prison or gang-related violations of prison rules. At the time of the 
settlement, the prisons had already lowered their solitary confinement 
population to less than 3,500, and they have released another 1,600 
since then, said Meeropol, a lawyer for the inmates.

But the lawyers said the state is misusing gang classifications to keep 
some prisoners in solitary confinement and to hurt others’ chances of 
winning release on parole, Illman agreed.

Evidence shows that the prison system “systematically relies on 
confidential information without ensuring its reliability, thus 
improperly returning (inmates) to solitary confinement,” the magistrate 
said. In a number of cases, he said, officials declared that damaging 
information from an unnamed informant was reliable because it had been 
corroborated by another informant, “except that there was no second 
informant, a fact that remained confidential.”

Before the 2016 settlement, when gang affiliation itself was grounds for 
solitary confinement, Illman noted, the prisons classified some inmates 
as gang members if they had received a birthday card from a gang member, 
if they spoke to a gang member or even if they had art in their cell 
with Aztec images or a pamphlet written in Swahili.

Since the settlement, Illman said, prison officials have used the same 
evidence to argue that an inmate who had served time in solitary is a 
gang member who should not be released on parole. When prisoners dispute 
their gang affiliation at parole hearings, the magistrate said, parole 
board members “consider the challenge itself to constitute evidence of 
dishonesty or a lack of remorse or credibility.”


Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: 
begelko at sfchronicle.com <mailto:begelko at sfchronicle.com> Twitter: 
@BobEgelko <https://twitter.com/BobEgelko>


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